Evan Jacobs recalls the one that got away, and how he let her go.
To me, she was Becky. To anyone else: Rebecca. I met her my on first day of college. I turned down a dorm hallway, and there she was, standing at her door, about to enter for the first time. She had black hair with telephone-cord curls, a face as round as a Peanuts character, and a nose upturned like a blunted checkmark. She stood off my shoulder in a cute, gangly body consisting of rectangles. In her lilting Chicagoan accent, she spoke as if we were old friends.
“I think this is my room.”
“Are you Emma Lam from Hong Kong?”
“I think that’s my roommate. I’m Rebecca.”
“Rebecca? I’m Evan. I think I’ll call you Becky. Can I call you Becky?”
“Uh. I guess.”
Now, Becky was resoundingly cute, and I was resoundingly attracted to her, but I had only ever had sex with one person—and I was still with that person. Thus, I befriended Becky in the way I befriend anyone—methodically and psychotically.
We shared two classes, Biology and Calculus, and lived a couple hundred feet from each other, so I always had an excuse to talk to her. Besides, Emma, her bite-sized roommate shipped from China, existed solely to giggle at my antics.
My doomed long-distance relationship persisted the first few months of college, so any romantic moment Becky and I shared (if there were any) was lost. Still, our friendship grew. We learned about each other. Becky was the oldest of four sisters and a baby brother. Her parents were kind and caring. Her mother once witnessed me hugging her and said, “Take your hands off my daughter.” It was a joke, but she must have seen the glassy sheen of my eyes when I ogled Becky.
Eventually, I gave my girlfriend the ol’ fashioned “Hey, remember when I said we’d be together forever? Yeah, about that…” Then, I had a decision to make. As I’ve brusquely spewed before, I have eternally believed happiness directly increased with the amount of women I bedded. I knew if Becky and I explored a romance, it would go well. I couldn’t foresee a break-up with Becky. So I would wait. Like a horror-film ghost, I had unfinished work.
I told myself it was a good idea. Becky had never had a boyfriend. First relationships are highly caustic and usually terminal. If Becky were to get a boyfriend, she could catch up to my level of maturity, then break up. I would pick up the pieces and live happily with Becky without her worrying about other men.
The plan was perfect.
The plan was also stupid and self-sabotaging. I had sex with one girl that year, in October. Meanwhile, Becky and I got dinner, dyed each other’s hair green (actually, she just dyed mine), smoked weed (actually, the one time Becky smoked, she almost went into a coma), and got piercings (I got two and she got zero).
Over the next year, mostly because I had colored hair, women noticed me more, and before you could say “unprotected sex,” I had had a slew of girlfriends and was rarely single. See: the Kathy story. But as I fornicated and flirted, Becky remained.
When the world went from pre- to post-9/11 and my third year began, I figured I had waited long enough. Becky would be mine. As soon as she got back from Paris, that is. Becky was taking a semester abroad. In Paris, le café runs hot and les hormones run hotter. She met someone, of course.
“His name’s Jerome.”
“Is he black?”
The second most painful experience is learning the person you love has a significant other. The most painful experience is meeting and genuinely liking that significant other. I met Jerome. I’d date him, too. He wasn’t black. He was tall, skinny, pockmarked, incredibly nice, and a fellow University of Chicago student on the trip with her.
Still, it was part of my plan. I just had to wait. Jerome was the captain of the cross-country team and a likely Rhode’s Scholar. Plenty of girls would tell him he ran like a gazelle and present their heaving breasts to him for suckling. Maybe Becky would grow tired of his skinny frame and yearn for a meaty substitute in the form of me.
They would break up. All first relationships break up. But they didn’t.
We finished our last year. We graduated. I stayed in Hyde Park for a year after college. It was early June 2004, and I was moving to New York City in days. Though I tried to forget it, I couldn’t leave without knowing what could have been.
Becky and I had dinner together. It was just another time out of dozens. After all, Becky didn’t smoke weed or drink, and I only smoked weed and drank. So, our shared realm was that of meals. Of course, this time, my dinner suggestion was shorthand for “Let me ambush you with a confession of love.” I could see it in my head as we drove to the restaurant together.
“Becky, I love you. Always have,” I’d say.
“I wish I knew how to quit you!” she’d say back.
“I know,” I’d say.
Okay, so that was Braveheart, Brokeback Mountain, and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively, but you get the idea.
Dinner progressed normally. Perhaps I pried more than usual. “Does he treat you well?” “Ever wonder if there are better matches for you?” “Ever worry he cheats on you?” “He’s probably cheating on you, right?” “He told me he was cheating. You should cheat on him.” But no, he treated her better than I had the capacity to, it seemed. Still, selfish asshole that I was, I had to say something. After all, I had been there first!
I remember it as if it were in present tense:
We’re parked in the driveway of my apartment building. Becky’s in the driver’s seat.
“Becky, I have something to tell you.”
“I love you. I’ve always loved you. I loved you the day we met. I’m sorry, I know you’re happy with Jerome. But I had to tell you.”
She twists up her face and sobs.
“Evan… why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t. Part of me wants to. But I can’t.”
I lean in and kiss her. It’s a soft, five-second, tongue-less kiss and though I don’t realize it, one of the most romantic moments of my life. She’s still crying. I apologize again and say goodbye.
The next time I see Becky, it’s at her wedding to Jerome, three years later.
Becky and I are still friends. We speak once every three to six months. Though I’ve moved on, I know if I had said something earlier, I’d probably be with her now. Of course, that would mean never experiencing any subsequent girlfriends, and, based on the girl I love now, perhaps I made the right choices after all. For now, and forever, the kiss she gave me was enough. Because at least it told me I was brave, I was worthy, and at some point, she had loved me too.
—Photo Samantha Louise Knott/Flickr